What Is Life?

  • by Addy Pross
  • Narrated by Derek Perkins
  • 6 hrs and 50 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

Seventy years ago, Erwin Schrdinger posed a simple, yet profound, question: What is life?. How could the very existence of such extraordinary chemical systems be understood? This problem has puzzled biologists and physical scientists both before, and ever since. Living things are hugely complex and have unique properties, such as self-maintenance and apparently purposeful behaviour which we do not see in inert matter. So how does chemistry give rise to biology? Did life begin with replicating molecules, and, if so, what could have led the first replicating molecules up such a path? Now, developments in the emerging field of 'systems chemistry' are unlocking the problem. Addy Pross shows how the different kind of stability that operates among replicating entities results in a tendency for certain chemical systems to become more complex and acquire the properties of life. Strikingly, he demonstrates that Darwinian evolution is the biological expression of a deeper and more fundamental chemical principle: the whole story from replicating molecules to complex life is one continuous coherent chemical process governed by a simple definable principle.

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Customer Reviews

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Profound & Life Changing...

Where does What Is Life? rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

This is one of the best audiobooks I've invested in on audible. As a college graduate with a BS in Biology concentrated in neuropharmacology and a minor in chemistry who's favorite course were molecular evolution and organic chemistry this was like going home.

I'd say this as a warning, if you're not familiar with terms like chirality or the process in which genes are expressed this might be a stretch from a comprehension standpoint, but if you are up for the challenge this book is absolutely worth it.

It's worth it anyway. It absolutely makes good on the title in far more comprehensive way than I expected.

For me, if I leave with with far more clarity than I started with on a subject I love, new questions about it that further my personal exploration of the subject, AND profound insights on things in realms far removed from the topic itself, that's what learning is about and that's exactly what this is.

What is life? Well, you'll find the most clear, lucid, quantifiable, and deductively valid answer to that question and a LOT more right here.

The value of the experience and permanent change to my world view FAR outweighs the cost.


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- Daegan Smith

Flawless narration, great book

Below is my review of the book which I also posted on Amazon (I had the matching ebook). Before that, I just want to say that I found the narration simply flawless, so much so that I went and bought a few more audiobooks narrated by Derek Perkins.

This little book achieves many things:

— It explains why life is a mystery: how did living matter evolve from non-living matter, and how did complexity emerge?
— It offers an overview of the main historical attempts to define life, and explains why life seems to elude any way of defining it.
— It offers an overview of the main attempts to study the origin of life, and where they fell short.
— It offers interesting observations on the relation between physics, chemistry, and biology, as well as the question of reduction vs. holism.
— It gives a primer on fundamental chemical dichotomies such as that between static and dynamic stability, or that between catalytic and auto-catalytic processes. These concepts are essential to understand the concept of life and that of its origin.

The question of the origin of life is in fact twofold. One facet of the question is historical: In what specific way did life emerge? Where, when, and following which steps? The other facet of the question is: What is the driving force behind the emergence of life? By analogy with the image of a boulder rolling down a slope, the first question asks what was the path followed by the boulder, while the second one asks what was the driving force for this movement (which, in the case of this example, was the gravitational force). We may never know the answer to the first question in regard to the origin of life, but the answer to the second one is very likely to come from systems chemistry.

The main message of this book is that the theory of evolution by natural selection is (as foreseen by Darwin himself) a special case of a broader law of stability, one that affects not just living creature but also certain kinds of inanimate matter, namely self-replicating molecules.

There are two very different kinds of chemical stability in the world. Static stability, governed to the second law of thermodynamics, is such that an entity is stable if it persists, if it maintains itself without change over time. On the contrary, dynamic stability is such that its components change, but the pattern remains the same. For instance, the molecules water in a river changes constantly, yet the river persists. The same can be said of the molecules in our body.

Dynamic stability is particularly important in the context of self-replicating (auto-catalytic) molecules. The product of their chemical reaction is not a different kind of molecule, but the same kind of molecule. RNA makes more RNA, DNA makes more DNA, and so on. This is studied by a branch of chemistry called systems chemistry.

The author explains how this process is the key to understanding life and its complexities. Unlike static (thermodynamic) stability, in which molecules do not react, dynamic stability can only persist if there are constant chemical reactions: new building blocks must be sourced constantly in order to keep the replication going. This drive towards dynamic stability takes the form of "complexification": those self-replicating entities which become more complex are better able to replicate and therefore to persist.

This principle guides inanimate self-replicating molecules as well as living organisms. The process by which life originated is not different from the one by which it evolves. They are one and the same, namely: replication, mutation, complexification, selection, evolution. This, incidentally, makes biology a branch of systems chemistry.

Life, says the author, started in earnest when a replicator acquired an energy-gathering capability, i.e. a metabolism. This allowed the replicator to detach itself from the constraints of the second law of thermodynamics and to evolve in pursuit of greater dynamic stability.

What I enjoyed most about this book is that it didn't just teach me stuff I didn't know, but it gave me a new way of thinking about life and its origin. There's great value in being able to look at old things in a fresh way, and I'll probably be musing on the contents of this books for months to come.
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- A. Franco

Book Details

  • Release Date: 10-14-2014
  • Publisher: Audible Studios